Normally, I try really hard to stay away from political commentary in this blog. Partly out of fear of offending readers of divergent political views. Mostly though, I am afraid that I have nothing else to add of any value to the discussion of the day. This week was one of those rare times where the fates came together and I feel perfectly comfortable writing what looks like, on first glance, a politically focused blog entry. The astute reader will follow this piece to its conclusion to see how it relates to many of the ongoing themes I blog about (probably too often.)
I just landed in Singapore, where I will be for a couple weeks. Then I will be off to Vietnam and India for teaching and photographing. I am here for my annual trip to Asia (as well as to escape the New England winter.) I love Singapore. There, I have said it. No, it is not just a police state. Yes, they cane people for defacing public property with graffiti. I happen to think that may be a good thing. As they say, a conservative is just a liberal whose property was tagged with graffiti. There, I have said another thing counter to the common wisdom.
The Singaporeans I know are well aware of the stereotypes about their country, which they laugh at as openly as we do. These are the same Singaporeans whose kids have the third best test scores in the world, far ahead of the average American kid’s test scores. I read about the disparity in test scores on the way over and a friend suggested I “find” those top-testing Singaporeans.
Getting off the plane they seemed to be everywhere. In fact, virtually every leg of my journey was a reminder of how we are letting ourselves get behind as a country and a culture. When I landed in Chicago at O’Hare airport, it was clear I had to pay for Wi-Fi use in the airport. To me (and much of the rest of the developed world) Wi-Fi is becoming like roads and bridges. It is simply part of the infrastructure. The Asians who were around me in O’Hare, waiting for the flight to Hong Kong (and then on to Singapore) were composing e-mails on their cutting edge smart-phones. They could not send those messages due to lack of Wi-Fi. I am betting they were complaining about the hardship of working in the Wi-Fi desert that dominates too much of America. They knew that once they landed in Hong Kong (or Singapore,) they were back in the land of free Wi-Fi and out of the land of primitive technology. Sure, there was a short-term gain on the part of the company charging for the Wi-Fi in O’Hare, but the long-term loss in respect and prestige is much higher.
The flight to Asia sent an equally shocking message to the Asians on the plane with me. The United Airlines 747 I flew on was so old that it had neither personalized video screens nor power plugs under the seats. Many of America’s other airlines and nearly all of Asia’s airlines fly newer planes with in seat power and/or personalized video screens.
Yes, I was bored. I slept a lot (not a bad thing) and I worked on my laptop till I ran out of power. I read, napped, walked around and listened to music on my iPod. Sure, I would like to have been on a more technologically advanced airplane, but so it goes. The Asians sitting around me will probably be much less forgiving when they tell their family and friends about the primitive conditions they had to experience flying on an old, technologically backward American airliner.
The customs and immigration procedures in Singapore were very straight forward (and much faster) than what we experience at home. As I write this, the Islamic call to prayer is echoing through the neighborhood where I am sitting and writing. Islam is one more part of the very vibrant culture here, to be embraced and not feared.
I could go on, but I think I have made the point. Are the Asians in general and the Singaporeans in particular better and smarter than we are? I doubt that! Are they more organized and better at systemizing things than we are? Undoubtedly. Are we missing the boat in a hundred small (and large) ways that will burden us for years to come? I certainly think so!
Am I willing to pay a higher tax on gas to reduce dependence on foreign oil and to spur renewable fuels? Absolutely. Do my wife and I share one car rather than each owning and using our own cars. Happily! Do I believe climate change is happening? Yes. Does it matter if all America believes that? I am not sure if it matters that they believe in climate change, but I know it matters that we act on that.
I was reminded of this when I recently heard outgoing Republican congressman, Bob Inglis (R-SC) attack his conservative colleagues for ignoring the problems the United States faces. Inglis said: “I would also suggest to my Free Enterprise colleagues — especially conservatives here — whether you think it’s all a bunch of hooey, (climate change) … the Chinese don’t. And they plan on eating our lunch in this next century,” he continued. “They plan on innovating around these problems, and selling to us, and the rest of the world, the technology that’ll lead the 21st century. So we may just press the pause button here for several years, but China is pressing the fast-forward button. They plan on leading the future,” Inglis noted.
In my experience, the Indians, and the Chinese (in and out of China) seem to better understand the need for sacrifice. They defer some reward today for long terms growth and reward tomorrow. When was the last time you heard about that happening in American culture? I know that such sacrifice happens individually. My daughter and niece sacrificed eight weeks of this past summer to help others less fortunate than they by volunteering in a school in India. That is great on an individual level, but as collective culture, when is the last time Americans were asked to sacrifice today for a better tomorrow?
There are many reasons I am in Singapore teaching photography. One reason is that the people in the organization hosting me (and the government too) know the importance of creativity in moving their culture up the economic pyramid. America has been at the top of that cultural creativity pyramid for a long, long time. In recent years I have started wondering how long that can continue. (Yes, I am contributing to that by teaching here, but if the Singaporeans are smart enough to recognize and use my talents, more power to them.)
I have seen globalization across the world in a myriad of countries and cultures. Am I the only one who notices how globalizing cultures seem to be working their way up Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? That theory states that human needs can be viewed in a five level pyramid with physiological needs at the bottom and the need for self-actualization at the top. The psychologist, Abraham Maslow developed published his theory his 1954 book “Motivation and Personality.” His thinking aligns with that of other psychologies of human developmental, all of which emphasize stages of growth in all humans, regardless of culture, ethnicity or nationality.
In some ways, the ideas behind America itself align with Maslow’s pyramid, especially when you think about “…life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Events of the last week or so have shown me how other countries/cultures are racing to the top of that pyramid. I fear that the top of that pyramid, like any other, has only room for a few people. We Americans have been used to being at the top. The last week or so has shown me how we are losing the edge that kept us there and that, regardless of your political affiliation, should be profoundly troubling to all Americans.